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Targeting youth and concerned smokers: evidence from Canadian tobacco industry documents
  1. Richard W Pollay
  1. Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  1. Professor Richard Pollay, Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, UBC - Zone 2, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2, Canada;pollay{at}


OBJECTIVE To provide an understanding of the targeting strategies of cigarette marketing, and the functions and importance of the advertising images chosen.

METHODS Analysis of historical corporate documents produced by affiliates of British American Tobacco (BAT) and RJ Reynolds (RJR) in Canadian litigation challenging tobacco advertising regulation, the Tobacco Products Control Act (1987): Imperial Tobacco Limitee & RJR-Macdonald Inc c. Le Procurer General du Canada.

RESULTS Careful and extensive research has been employed in all stages of the process of conceiving, developing, refining, and deploying cigarette advertising. Two segments commanding much management attention are “starters” and “concerned smokers”. To recruit starters, brand images communicate independence, freedom and (sometimes) peer acceptance. These advertising images portray smokers as attractive and autonomous, accepted and admired, athletic and at home in nature. For “lighter” brands reassuring health concerned smokers, lest they quit, advertisements provide imagery conveying a sense of well being, harmony with nature, and a consumer's self image as intelligent.

CONCLUSIONS The industry's steadfast assertions that its advertising influences only brand loyalty and switching in both its intent and effect is directly contradicted by their internal documents and proven false. So too is the justification of cigarette advertising as a medium creating better informed consumers, since visual imagery, not information, is the means of advertising influence.

  • advertising
  • brand imagery
  • market research
  • youth targeting
  • “concerned” smokers
  • corporate documents

Statistics from

This review of the role of advertising in cigarette marketing provides a systematic understanding of the processes and outcomes of advertising management in the contemporary period. The principles of advertising and its management, which are universal to all jurisdictions, are illustrated by reference to cigarette industry documents produced in litigation assessing the constitutionality of Canada's 1987 Tobacco Products Control Act. This act sought to prevent “inducements” to smoking and to substantially, but not totally, restrict cigarette advertising activity. It was challenged in Imperial Tobacco Limitee & RJR-Macdonald Inc. c. Le Procurer General du Canada, Requete pour Judgement Declaratoire and first tried in Montreal, Quebec, Canada's “smokiest” province, and before Justice Chabot, himself a heavy smoker.

Because the principals in this legal challenge were Imperial Tobacco (ITL), a subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT-UK), and RJ Reynolds-Macdonald (RJR-M), a subsidiary of RJ Reynolds (RJR-US), these firms serve as illustrative examples of the industry's marketing responses to their current strategic situation, particularly their targeting of the young for recruitment of new smokers, and targeting of health concerned smokers to offer them false reassurances.

The industry advocates, both its lawyers and its so-called “experts”, held steadfastly to the position that cigarette advertising is of no consequence except for brand loyalty and brand switching, despite the wealth of trade, academic, and government conclusions to the contrary. By neither intent nor effect, it is was held, does cigarette advertising influence non-smokers, such as potential starters, nor influence existing smokers with respect to quitting. These opinions and assertions were based upon simplistic theorising, for example, the “mature market” hypothesis, and conspicuously ignored the wealth of recent research and the many documents evidencing actual corporate activity.1 2

Cigarette advertising in the contemporary era

Advertising of maximal effectiveness for both individual firms and the collective industry would (a) reinforce current smokers, inducing them to continue smoking rather than quit, and/or (b) attract starters. This would retain the current clientele and recruit an ongoing influx of starters to replace those quitting and dying. If these are not both accomplished, any inter-firm or inter-brand competition over market share would be a fight to divide a rapidly shrinking business. The most important inter-firm competition for market share occurs in the battle to attract starters, for once brand loyalties are soon established for this addictive product, business becomes very “locked in”. Cigarettes enjoy phenomenally high brand loyalty, the highest of all consumer products.3 A relatively low rate of brand switching is the norm, usually 10% or less.4-7Therefore, the competition for and successful recruitment of starters is key to long term prosperity of both the individual firms and the collective industry, as is the reassurance and resulting increased retention of existing smokers.

Smokers' needs: reassurance

By the 1970s, health authorities in the US, UK, Canada and many other countries had issued official reports, school education programs had begun, and warnings were appearing on packaging and advertising. In some jurisdictions advertising was no longer appearing on radio and television except through event sponsorships and product placement.

The growing public consciousness and concern about the health consequences of smoking constituted a major threat to the economic welfare of the cigarette firms. Health concerns could increase quitting rates and reduce the volume of new starters beginning to smoke in each year. Even content smokers are subject to reminders that their smoking is offensive to others or risking their health. These reminders and reflections produce what psychologists and consumer researchers call cognitive dissonance—sets of internally inconsistent, conflicted attitudes. One of advertising's common functions is to reassure existing consumers that they have done the right thing, therefore reducing this cognitive dissonance.

This can be seen clearly in the Canadian trial documents. “There is little doubt that the constant reminders of a possible association between smoking and health has had and will have a long term detrimental effect on the cigarette industry. The future long term effects of anti-smoking publicity will most likely be seen in a continuing reduced incidence and frequency of smoking rather than brand switching.”8 Cigarette firms now face a market where many smokers are questioning their “habit” for health and economic reasons. The present anti-smoking climate has made smokers defensive about smoking both to themselves and to others. “These attitudes result in smokers requiring some reassurance about the social acceptability of smoking.”9

The threat from health concerns of smokers and would be smokers is exacerbated by the contemporary general interest in health and fitness. “We believe that the qualitative level of smoker's distress is escalating. This direct pressure is complemented by the fact that Canadians are increasingly obsessed by lifestyle. Spearheaded by a baby boom generation that is committed to living forever and is feeling the first twinges of age, the population is increasingly turning from alcohol, dietary fats, low exercise, etc. The fundamental indictment of tobacco is compounded by the current social environment.”10

Research sophistication on current and potential smokers

The potential impact of cigarette advertising was greatly enhanced by careful research to identify the effective appeals and executions, leaving nothing to chance or misguided judgement. The cigarette industry has long employed state of the art market research activities in support of its advertising decisions. A Canadian firm in the early 1970s showed that it had as much research motivation and sophistication as the US firms. It supported a large university study to find personality correlates with cigarette brand preferences. Because of its methodological sophistication, highlights were reported in the academic literature. Its principal finding was that “the relationship [between personality and preferences] . . . was particularly marked among the working class respondents with low self-confidence”.11

The amount and variety of trade research done to aid the advertising and promotional process for cigarettes is considerable. The techniques range from the pedestrian to the esoteric, from simple questions and discussion to elaborate large surveys, to high technology observation devices. Most of the studies seek insight into the psychological dynamics of potential consumers, and their perceptions, interpretations, and recall of advertisements. The consumer research identifies the needs, interests and concerns of target audiences so that advertising can “position” the product offering in terms that the target audience will find relevant and appealing.

Even apparently small factors are researched in great detail. A pre-test of creative work for a single medium, like outdoor billboards, can lead to reports presenting several hundred pages of tables of data. For a medium like outdoor billboards, experiments would expose subjects to various ads for fleeting glimpses using a tachistiscope. After subsequent data gathering, longer exposures might be provided an additional data gathered.12

The evaluation of a single ad can lead to a report of nearly 200 pages. An ad is assessed against benchmark data, for performance on factors like: impact; day after recall; persuasion; supportive qualitative communication and comprehension; and product and user imagery communication, and related diagnostics.13

Multiple research resources and perspectives are employed for a single brand. Imperial Tobacco pursued Projects Huron and Erie during the early 1980s investigating the market feasibility of a product that blended American and Canadian tobacco. The target market for Project Huron was “principally young males 15–25”.14Extensive research was done on this target population, and their reactions to prototype recipes, packaging, brand positioning, advertising, and reasons for quitting the brand after sampling. At least 33 different studies were executed in a four year period [1982 to 1985], employing at least six different outside research contractors: Adcom Research; Centre de Recherches Contemporaines Limitee; COGEM Inc Marketing; Groupe Innova; Kwechansky Marketing Research; and Realities Canadiennes.15

RJR-M shows a similar thoroughness in its use of research. Market research activities guiding one advertising campaign began with a relatively qualitative study of a few subjects, identifying their desired self-image, and exploring their reactions to concept boards (sketches of ads), and packaging. This was followed by more in-depth interviews with a larger and more representative sample, testing the attractiveness of the brand “positioning”, and obtaining further direction for creative development. Additional in-depth interviews probed for consumer reactions to alternative advertising art work, repeating this sort of research at various stages as the art work developed from rough to more finished quality. A test market fine tuned the marketing strategy before national launch. Tracking studies followed the advertising's success at gaining brand awareness, trial purchasing, market acceptance or rejection among various groups, brand loyalty, and repeat purchase patterns.16

Segmentation analysis

Marketing strategists and managers recognise the human diversity of the markets they sell to. In recognising various types (segments) of consumers, marketing programs and promotions can better target the specific needs of target groups. This segmentation approach yields more efficiency (economic use of resources) and effectiveness (realising desired results) than would be the result of a single undifferentiated effort aimed at the “average” member of the mass market. (Introductory marketing students are sometimes reminded that the average consumer has one testicle.) Knowing the idiosyncrasies, attitudes, needs and “hot buttons” of identified targets allows for product design and advertising that is far more likely to elicit favourable consumer responses.

The research and resulting “positioning” for specific brands occurs in the context of the firm's understanding of the segmentation structure of the entire market, and the overall product mix strategy—the development of a variety of product “positions” for the various market segments that may exist. The RJR-M “Family segmentation: segment descriptor study” illustrates the types of data generated, the analytical procedures employed, and the insights obtained in segmentation analyses.17 This document is a summary set of descriptive exhibits based on the 330 paged “Multi-brand tracking, brand family and smoker segmentation” prepared by ABM Research Ltd for RJR-M.18 This research effort used three complementary approaches in the effort to segment the cigarette market.

The first approach to identifying segments measured how various brands were perceived by collecting data for 16 brand families across a series of 24 “product user imagery statements”. Subjects indicated, on a seven point scale, the extent to which a brand and/or brand user was or was not perceived to have various attributes. Attribute items included: modern person, sociable person, likes challenges, sophisticated, intelligent, self assured, adventurous, independent, well off, city dweller, younger, and popular. These image data “were subject to a perceptual mapping operation which enabled us to identify five family clusters or segments”. These were labelled with identifiers such as “masculine” (for example, Player's and Export A), “popular/urban” (for example, duMaurier) or “concerned” (for example, Vantage).

The second approach, called “tobaccographics”, clustered consumers based on data showing reactions to 28 statements reflecting attitudes toward smoking. Sample statements included: “I smoke automatically without being aware of it”; “In general, you are more acceptable to people if you don't smoke”; “There are brands of cigarettes I wouldn't smoke because of what others might think”; “If a number of my friends smoked a particular brand, I might consider switching to it”; and “I pay attention to what is said in cigarette advertising”. These data, when analysed simultaneously, also yielded five clusters of about equal size. These segments were identified as “experimenters”, “latent quitters”, “unselective habituals”, “selective habituals”, and “ostriches”. “Latent quitters” were characterised as: “Do not enjoy smoking; claim to be habitual smokers; are health concerned; and brand loyal”. “Ostriches” are those who “are not health concerned; are not concerned about non-smokers; enjoy smoking; are not experimental and have strong commitment to [their] regular brand”. Half (48%) of the “ostriches” are in Quebec. They are the least well educated and have relatively low household incomes. Some 39% of “ostriches” smoke Export A or Player's, but only 1% smoke brands like Vantage, Accord, Medallion or Viscount.17 18

In the third parallel effort identifying segments, consumers were clustered based on their answers to 74 statements dealing with attitudes towards life in general. This identified six segments: “status seekers”, “affluent progressives”, “achievers”, “economically burdened conservatives”, “sex role traditionalists”, and “geriatrics”. “Status seekers”, for example, were the “emotional response group; appearance conscious; . . . peer influenced”. “Geriatrics”, on the other hand, are described as “inward looking, home oriented, not concerned with appearance, not active socially, no future goals, not achievement oriented, not peer influenced, and do not consider themselves leaders”.17

In addition to these three data bases used to define segments, much additional data were also gathered to provide a profile of the interests and behaviours of segment members. Thus questions were also included in the areas of “leisure time pursuits, media consumption, drinking of alcoholic beverages, vehicle ownership, clothing, and personality descriptors that respondents would like to see applied to themselves”. Media consumption data, as an example, measured the frequency of exposure to the major media: newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. For each of these, the frequency of exposure to various types of programming or sections was measured, as in newspaper sections like local news, national news, international news, editorials, travel, sports, entertainment, classified, women's section, business, and comics. Leisure time activities were measured for 64 different types, ranging from visiting friends to playing rugby, and including home improvement projects, contact sports, amusement parks, exercise, bowling, needlecrafts, racetracks, church activities, opera, windsurfing, etc.17 18

Two segments that got attention

Much of the attention in the advertising campaigns of both ITL and RJR-M focused on the segments of concerned smokers (“latent quitters”) and the young starters (“new users”). The dual interest in reinforcing existing smokers and recruiting new smokers is shown in many of the documents, with brand switchers of tertiary importance. RJR-M's 1979 annual business plan sought “to reassure all full flavour smokers and convince first time smokers”.19 RJR-M's “Annual Business Plan, 1980” for Canada states: “The primary objective is to maintain current brand users. Secondarily, Export A has always had strong appeal to young adult smokers and this important source of business should continue to be supported. Full flavour switchers represent a smaller tertiary objective.”20

The F88 marketing plan of ITL notes the particular strategic importance of the youth segment: “If the last 10 years have taught us anything, it is that the industry is dominated by the companies who respond most effectively to the needs of younger smokers. Our efforts on these brands will remain on maintaining their relevance to smokers in these younger groups in spite of the [poor] share performance they may develop among older smokers.”21

Recruiting the young